A missed opportunity
This was Roy Evans’ third full season as Liverpool FC manager and the pressure was increasing on him to bring back silverware to the Anfield trophy cabinet. Liverpool had an emerging young crop of players coming through along with a few experienced heads and in 1996-1997, they looked like a genuine title contender. They were five points clear going into the New Year.
However, too many dropped points against inferior sides, a series of goalkeeper blunders from David James and questions about the team’s mentality saw the challenge ebb away and on the final day, the Reds were squeezed into fourth place courtesy of goal difference. It definitely felt like a missed opportunity.
Squad: David James, Rob Jones, John Scales (Left in December 1996), Bjorn Tore Kvarme, Jason McAteer, Mark Wright, Phil Babb, Steve Harkness, Neil Ruddock, Stig Inge Bjornebye, Dominic Matteo, Jamie Carragher, Mark Kennedy, Michael Thomas, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Patrik Berger, David Thompson, Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen
After finishing third in 1995-1996 behind Manchester United and Newcastle United, Liverpool FC were seen as a creditable contender for Premier League glory. Six whole seasons had now passed since the Reds had been English champions and that was far too long for many of the patient supporters.
Manager Roy Evans didn’t see any need to invest heavily in the summer transfer market but he did swoop for the Czech midfielder Patrik Berger from Borussia Dortmund. Berger had excelled at the 1996 European Championships, helping his country reach the final and Liverpool snapped him up for £3.25 million.
One player who did move on was Ian Rush, who had announced his departure towards the end of the previous campaign. Rush was LFC’s all-time leading goalscorer but had now fallen behind Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore in the pecking order and elected to move on for a fresh challenge at Leeds United.
Setting the pace
Liverpool’s first game of the new season came at The Riverside Stadium against Middlesbrough and it was a thrilling contest. The Reds led three times through goals from Stig Inge Bjornebye, John Barnes and Fowler. However, they had to be content with a 3-3 draw thanks to a spectacular opening day hat-trick from Middlesbrough’s new striker, Fabrizio Ravanelli.
The first victory arrived two days later when two Steve McManaman goals defeated Arsenal 2-0 at Anfield and Liverpool stayed unbeaten for the first eight matches of the Premier League campaign, topping the standings at the end of September.
Berger settled in very quickly, grabbing a brace on his LFC debut in a fine 3-0 away win at Filbert Street against Leicester City before repeating the trick in a fabulous 5-1 victory over Chelsea at Anfield. Fowler was still scoring goals as freely as the previous campaign and even the unlikely source of Phil Babb popped up with the winner at his old stomping ground of Highfield Road.
There were only three defeats in the first half of the campaign. The first came at Old Trafford in mid-October thanks to a David Beckham strike. There was a dismal day at Ewood Park where Liverpool lost 3-0 to bottom-placed Blackburn Rovers and in early December, surprise packages Sheffield Wednesday claimed a 1-0 victory and became the first team to leave Anfield with all three points in the 1996-1997 campaign.
Fowler scored four goals in the return fixture with Middlesbrough and when Barnes rolled back the years with a winning goal from distance in the final Premier League fixture of 1996 away at Southampton, Liverpool went into 1997 holding a useful five-point lead at the top of the table.
29th DECEMBER 1996 TABLE
1997 did start with a 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge to Chelsea who would also stage an extraordinary fightback from 2-0 down to beat Evans’ side 4-2 in the FA Cup fourth round. Liverpool though were still conducting business in the Premier League in a fairly professional manner.
They kept five successive clean sheets in the top-flight after the setback in west London and dismissed Aston Villa and Leeds United very comfortably. The Villa game saw the first Premier League appearance from young defender Jamie Carragher and he scored the opening goal too in the 3-0 triumph.
The first signs of a faltering title bid came towards the end of February against Blackburn Rovers on home soil. Despite dominating possession and creating a host of chances, Liverpool’s finishing let them down with Fowler especially guilty of missing glorious openings. The 0-0 draw was the third stalemate at home in the season for Liverpool and this was an omen of things to come.
A week later, a late Ian Taylor goal sent Liverpool to defeat at Villa Park and gave reigning champions Manchester United a four-point lead at the top of the table. Liverpool dropped further points away at The City Ground, drawing 1-1 when Ian Woan punished a dreadful goalkeeping error from David James.
James was starting to cost Liverpool crucial points, earning himself the unfortunate nickname of ‘Calamity James.’ In early April, he was at fault for both goals to allow 20th place Coventry City to come from behind to pull off a stunning 2-1 victory at Anfield. The title dream was ebbing away and the supporters knew it.
A catastrophe against Manchester United
In that period, Liverpool did beat both Newcastle United and Arsenal. In the latter game, Fowler won a UEFA Fair Play Award for attempting to overturn Gerald Ashby’s decision to give the Reds a penalty after Fowler went down without any contact from Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman.
There were serious question marks about Liverpool’s hunger and mentality. Some of the young players – particularly Fowler, McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Jason McAteer were criticised for partying too much and not focusing completely on football. Another unfortunate tag was dished out with this group being referred too as ‘The Spice Boys.’
The final nail in Liverpool’s title coffin came when league leaders Manchester United arrived at Anfield on 19th April. This was the Reds last chance and they put in a deeply disappointing display. They conceded two sloppy set-piece goals to Gary Pallister and James had another catastrophe, failing to catch a cross and allowing Andy Cole to score one of the simplest goals of his career. The Red Devils won 3-1 and it was all over.
Title hopes officially ended on 6th May when Liverpool lost 2-1 to Wimbledon which ended their mathematical hopes of catching Manchester United. The only plus point of a thoroughly frustrating evening at Selhurst Park was the emergence of young prodigy Michael Owen. Owen came off the bench and scored with virtually his first chance in the senior side. Having impressed greatly at youth level, this was Owen’s big moment and a goalscoring star was well and truly born.
Second place was still up for grabs on the final day but Liverpool could only draw 1-1 at Sheffield Wednesday. Rivals Newcastle United and Arsenal both won which saw them overtake Liverpool on the final day on goal difference. Newcastle grabbed second spot which meant they would compete in the following season’s UEFA Champions League.
Despite having been considered as the best team for much of the season, Liverpool FC had nothing to show for their efforts. Fourth place and two cup semi-finals was seen as a major underachievement for this emerging team and they wouldn’t get a better opportunity to end the league famine for the remainder of the 1990s.
FINAL 1996-1997 TABLE – FIRST TO SIXTH